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Ohio Animal Tragedy Calls Attention to Loopholes in U.S. Captive Wildlife Laws

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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This week’s release and death of more than 50 so-called “exotic” animals near Zanesville, Ohio, is a tragic reminder that the laws protecting wildlife in the U.S. are full of loopholes that endanger not only the animals themselves but also people.

One of those loopholes could actually be closed soon. Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposed doing away with an exemption in the Captive-Bred Wildlife Registration Program that currently allows individuals to own “generic” tigers (any tiger, usually cross-breeds, that can’t be identified as from the Bengal, Sumatran, Siberian/Amur or Indochinese subspecies and are therefore genetically useless for conservation purposes). If the new rule passes, owners of all of these tigers—the FWS estimates there could be 5,000 or more of these animals in the U.S. alone, significantly more full-breed tigers than remain in the wild—would be required to register the animals with the federal government. Owners would need permits or authorizations to sell the tigers across state lines, to harm them or to kill them. (You can read more about this proposed rule change and find out how to comment on it here.)

By the way, estimates of how many tigers are in private ownership in the U.S. are highly controversial. Some environmental groups say there may be as many as 10,000. Last month, the Feline Conservation Federation (FCF) released a survey which counted 2,884 tigers in zoos, nature centers and sanctuaries, but this obviously does not include much of the hidden market that fed people like Zanesville’s Terry Thompson, although the FCF did know about him.

While all tigers and lions are protected under the Endangered Species Act, it does not regulate private ownership of these or any other species or sales within a state’s borders. And once an animal has been sold, it can easily be transported (legally or otherwise) across state lines.

This is an even bigger loophole, and it ties directly to the tragedy in Zanesville. Each state in the U.S. has different laws regarding the ownership of exotic animals. In New York State, home of Scientific American, it is illegal for a person to own any wild animal (not that this stops people—don’t forget the famous case of a Harlem man who housed a tiger in his apartment). In Maine, where I live, a person may possess a wild animal after obtaining a permit. In Ohio—one of the most lax states in the union regarding exotics—there are no laws banning or restricting the ownership of wild animals. The only restriction is that non-domesticated animals brought into the state must carry an entry permit and a certificate of health. (The non-profit Born Free USA has a run-down of all 50 state exotic animal laws.)

According to Ohio’s NBC 4, the only laws governing exotic animals in the state regulate breeders and exhibitors, such as zoos or sanctuaries. Those facilities must maintain heath certificates and veterinary inspections for their animals.

This lack of state laws protecting wildlife and exotic animals results in a situation where many states, but especially Ohio, become havens for exotic animal auctions where animals (many of them endangered species) are sold to private collectors and hunting ranches. See the video below for more information on this unethical market.

One such auction is the triennial Mid Ohio Alternative Animal and Bird Sale, the most recent of which was held on September 16. While no big cats or bears were reportedly for sale at this particular event, the event’s Web page does note that other species would be available. (The event’s only restriction for buyers: “A USDA licence [sic] will be required when purchasing certain primates (Baboons, Chimpanzees, Gorrillas [sic], and Orangutans”.)

Following the tragic events in Zanesville, many advocates for humane treatment of animals are calling for new laws to end these auctions. “We have some animal auctions in Ohio that have to be shut down. Shut down. And we have to have strict permitting process here,” said TV icon Jack Hanna, director emeritus of Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. The Web site Change.org is running an online petition to ban the sale and ownership of exotics in Ohio.

In several TV appearances during the past 24 hours, Hanna said that any new laws would not affect legitimate breeding facilities, which are a vital part of the conservation process and important partners for zoos and animal sanctuaries.

In a public statement, Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, decried Ohio’s lack of regulations for the dangers they pose to humans: “In recent years, Ohioans have died and suffered injuries because the state hasn’t stopped private citizens from keeping dangerous wild animals as pets or as roadside attractions.”

The Born Free USA database of exotic animal incidents lists 1,599 animal attacks on humans since 1990, including 75 deaths.

It’s worth noting that the previous governor of Ohio, Ted Strickland (D), tried to change at least a tiny portion of these laws. Just before he left office, he issued an executive order that would have prevented people convicted of animal cruelty—such as Terry Thompson—from owning exotic animals. That order was allowed to expire in April under current Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R).

In the face of Zanesville, many people ask, is there a conservation value in private ownership of wildlife and endangered species? The answer, simply, is no. Private citizens are not equipped or trained to ensure the health of wild and exotic animals, to breed them in a manner that ensures species’ long-term survival, or to keep them safely separated from people who could be harmed if they escaped.

As long as people keep thinking that they can tame nature and put it in a cage, another Zanesville is just around the corner.

Photo by Braden Kowitz via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. dmalleske 3:36 pm 10/21/2011

    It should be noted that while Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) did let the existing law expire he is proposing a revised law that, based on the reaction of many pro-exotics groups in Ohio, may be even stricter.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Steve D 5:51 pm 10/21/2011

    Why does this require Federal action, or indeed any action, at all? It made the news precisely because it’s a rare case. There were plenty of existing laws that could have been applied, to say nothing of telling people to stay indoors until all the animals were captured. Not every problem requires a legislative, let alone Federal, solution.

    Link to this
  3. 3. AnneHSUS 2:27 pm 10/24/2011

    Thank you so much for this great article. At the Humane Society of the United States, we agree with Gov Kasich that the legislature should enact a statute that addresses the problem, but in the interim, we need an executive order that bans the sale and acquisition of dangerous wild animals as pets or roadside attractions.

    Link to this
  4. 4. amyk1980 3:40 pm 10/24/2011

    Actually, Gov. Kasich’s new executive order is not as restrictive as the order by Gov. Strickland that Kasich let lapse. The previous order would have required everyone who owned dangerous wild animals to register them by May 1 of this year. People with cruelty convictions would not have been allowed to own these animals. Terry Thompson had a cruelty conviction, and it’s very likely his animals would have been removed and sent to a sanctuary.

    Gov. Kasich’s order by contrast does not require anyone to register their animals. It simply instructs agencies to look for existing permits. However, Terry Thompson did not have a license and did not need one – he didn’t sell animals and wasn’t open to the public. He had a private zoo. Kasich’s current order will not regulate anyone like Thompson who has these animals as pets. It also leaves responsibility for regulations to local humane societies that are already overworked and underfunded, especially in rural areas.

    Kasich’s order is too little too late to deal with the problem of unregulated ownership of wild dangerous animals that has been festering in Ohio for years.

    Link to this
  5. 5. MonicaBornFree 12:06 pm 10/28/2011

    Born Free USA appreciates that Gov. Kasich has spoken to the issue, we wish it had come sooner.
    It’s too late to help those unfortunate animals near Zanesville. However, there are things everyone can do to can do to help prevent more such tragedies. Everyone can learn about exotic animal incidents and laws in their states and approach local and state lawmakers and encourage them to pursue laws that ban private possession of exotics. In addition everyone can ask their U.S. senators to pass the “Captive Primate Safety Act,” which prohibits interstate commerce in monkeys, apes and other primates in the exotic “pet” trade.
    trade.

    Link to this

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